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No tax hike projected for Sturgeon County

Budget includes $7.3 million for broadband
0212 CountyBud Presentation sup
LOW TAXES – This slide from the Nov. 25 budget presentation to Sturgeon County council shows how the average county homeowner can expect to pay $1,647 in municipal taxes next year compared to several other jurisdictions. The draft 2021 county budget includes a 0 per cent tax hike. STURGEON COUNTY/Photo

Sturgeon County residents are set to pay the same amount of county taxes next year that they did this year under the terms of the county’s draft budget – a budget that includes a $7-million boost for broadband. 

Sturgeon County council voted 6-1 (Coun. Karen Shaw opposed) to stick with administration’s recommendation of a zero-per-cent tax hike on Nov. 27 after three days of debate on the draft 2021 budget. It was the third budget in a row not to feature a municipal tax hike.  

Passed as-is, the draft budget would cost the owner of the average $451,995 home in the county $1,647 in municipal taxes – the same as what they paid this year. That homeowner should also expect to pay $82.32 a year for water and wastewater, the rates for which rose four and six per cent, respectively.  

Add in projected three- and six-per-cent increases to the seniors and education levies, and the average county homeowner would expect to pay about $157 more in all taxes and fees next year if the budget passed in its current form – enough to buy about 11 dozen muffins at Tim Hortons.  

“This is a budget we’ve worked hard for,” Mayor Alanna Hnatiw said Nov. 27, and it is not over yet – council still has to decide how it wants to use some $8.9 million in leftover significant growth revenue (taxes from major industrial projects, such as the Sturgeon Refinery, which are considered separate from the tax-supported budget), which is currently slated to go into reserves.

Busy budget 

The draft budget includes a long list of enhancements for county services.  

There is $335,167 to fix faded, leaning, and broken street signs, for example, and $265,000 to stabilize more gravel roads with chemicals and geo-textiles. Another $215,000 has been tagged to create a laser-radar elevation map of the county. Accurate to within a few centimetres, this should help the county fix and prevent floods, county chief operating officer Scott MacDougall told council. 

The draft budget includes some big figures for economic development. This includes $50,000 to attract investment in hydrogen, $122,000 for other ads, $85,000 for a new branding initiative and $325,000 for the Villeneuve Landing Network.  

Added to the budget is $7.3 million to accelerate broadband internet in the region by subsidizing service providers. The investment follows a September report to council which found most of the county has download speeds well below 25 megabits per second (the CRTC’s national broadband target is 50 megabits per second), and about 53 per cent of residents wanted the county to partner with the private sector and invest as needed to improve broadband access. 

Hnatiw said the county could draw data centres and other new businesses to its neighbourhood if it has more reliable internet access. 

“We have third-world and developing countries that have more bandwidth than we do,” she said. 

Council voted 5-2 against (Shaw and Coun. Neal Comeau in favour) a motion to remove a proposed $150,000 train whistle cessation program from the budget. The program would let the county pass laws to force train operators not to sound their whistles in certain areas (typically near homes). 

Comeau said this policy would “open up Pandora’s Box” as it could affect every rail crossing in the county, adding people should expect train noises when they build or buy next to a railroad track. 

“What came first: the trains or the housing subdivisions? Pretty sure the trains came first.” 

Coun. Dan Derouin said many residents moved into those homes when there was far less train activity in the county, and the noise was affecting people across the river in Fort Saskatchewan.  

“We’re not just affecting our citizens, we’re affecting our neighbouring community, and we have the power to do something to help them,” Derouin said. 

Council voted 5-2 (Comeau and Coun. Patrick Tighe opposed) to add three full-time firefighters to the budget for $254,934, which would bring its full-time contingent up to 12.  

County fire chief Pat Mahoney said this addition would ensure there are at least three firefighters on call at all times even if someone is off sick, training or on vacation. The fire department has already responded to about 75 more calls this year than last, despite not doing most of its regular medical assists due to the pandemic, and has also seen an uptick in fires and collisions.  

While Comeau and Tighe said they wanted to take a more regional approach to fire protection, Coun. Kristin Toms said it could take a very long time to negotiate such an approach, and these firefighters could prevent overtime expenses and crew exhaustion. 

“I think we need to do this now to ensure our residents’ safety,” Toms said. 

Council will hold its final vote on the budget later in December. 

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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